Living life between the barrel staves in Bourbon Country

The Power of a Chef

The first decade of the millenia might very well be termed by future historians as the decade of the celebrity chef. Judging by the New Year’s day news, the next few years are unlikely to be any different. People – particularly other chefs – have a love/hate relationship with celebrity chefs. On one hand, their personalities engage the public in such a way many are tempted to try foods they may have otherwise never attempted, or even encountered. On the other hand it is those same personalities which often threaten to overshadow the food.

Tonight (Sunday) is the great Super Chef event on the Food Network (8pm EST), something anyone who has even flipped past the channel in recent weeks will have heard advertised. With hype approaching a heavyweight title fight the network’s popular Iron Chef America show moves from Kitchen Stadium to the White House. Using ingredients from the White House garden and featuring a guest appearance by the First Lady herself, Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse will take on Bobby Flay and White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford. You may recall the Obama administration got off to a fast start, in the food world at least, with the buzz surrounding the planting of the White House garden. Keeping with what would become a pattern for its Executive decisions, the administration stumbled just as quickly as it began when stories appeared about lead contamination attributed, at least in part, to the sludge the Clinton administration used as fertilizer during the 1990’s (insert your own joke here). The lead levels in the soil, while within acceptable limits based on National Parks Service testing, was enough to keep the garden from being certified as organic. Conservative pundits and bloggers had a field day with the story. Like health care reform it was a good idea whose execution didn’t meet up to expectations.

All that is sure to be forgotten after the Iron Chef battle royal. The First Lady is using the event to promote healthy eating and to draw awareness to America’s obesity problem. By pairing Batali and Lagasse, she’ll probably make her point in ways she didn’t intend. There is, truthfully, talk of several FN hosts going on diets in the new year as they have become visibility more, ahem… successful, than they would like to be.  All joking aside, the White House should be commended for its efforts in this regard. It promises to be an interesting show, and one well worth watching. For a New York Times article on the show’s taping click here.

Food Network is certainly keeping their top personalities busy. On Friday, the Cablevision system in NY, NJ and CT dropped the Food Network and HGTV, both owned by Scripps, over disagreements pertaining to royalties. The dispute is similar to one Time Warner Cable and Fox Networks resolved the same week. The Food Network wasted no time in mobilizing it’s forces to attack Cablevision. In addition to the website, the powers that be sent Guy Fieri out to You Tube with a series of videos announcing and bemoaning Cablevision’s decision. Iron Chef’s Bobby Flay and Michael Symon both took to their Twitter accounts to urge those affected to protest directly to the cable provider. Call it celebrity chefs as corporate cheerleader. It’s hard to imagine a channel more benign than what Scripps offers (they have just bought the Travel Channel as well), but it’s something people are passionate for. Losing Fox News might aggravate some conservatives, but take Paula Dean away from grandma and there’ll be hell to pay – with a pound of butter to go along with it no less. Food television is escapist fantasy personified, which may explain while there is a lot less cooking going on TV these days and a lot more eating instead. See Anthony Bourdain’s column in the New York Times for his take on the phenomenon (click here).

So here is the dilemma – do we view celebrity chefs as inherently good or inherently bad? I think the answer is this: Celebrity Chefs, meaning those who are actually chefs by profession and have earned their stripes in the kitchens of the world, can be a source for positive influence. That the White House is in tune enough with popular culture to engage some of it’s more visible symbols (not to mention utilizing one of the few cable networks to actually see profitability and growth in the current economic climate), is something with which no serious person can take issue.  The danger, and the problem, comes when we inaccurately apply the title “chef” to a TV personality who just happens to cook or talk about food.  Just as consumers need to be aware of what organic means (as well as when it matters and when it doesn’t), as viewers we need to be aware of what we’re seeing and intelligent enough to differentiate between the two.  There is, I believe, an audience for both. Let’s hope the coming year shows just as much of the former as the latter. Until then, allez cuisine!

DISCLAIMER: It should be noted that the author of this blog will often refer to himself as a cook, but never, EVER as a chef.



2 responses

  1. Tom Baker

    I’m just a cook but when someone asks me what I’m doing I often answer, “I’m cheffin'” I wrote a post on the White House battle last year and I will surely be watching. I’m pulling for Batali and Lagasse, how about you?

    January 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

  2. Tom,

    I always have a hard time betting against Batali. I think his culinary knowledge runs further afield than Bobby Flay’s (though I’m a huge Flay fan). It will be interesting to see Lagasse under the time pressures of kitchen stadium – I’ve always wanted to see him on the show.

    January 3, 2010 at 11:44 pm

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